Advice for the 50+ athlete from the Functional Aging Institute

“It does not matter how old you are. As long as you don’t stop”.

Dr. Dan Ritchie

I am going to use the blog section of my site to supplement the “interviews of the athletes” with “advice to the 50+ crowd”.   I will be interviewing a collection of professionals who work with older clients & athletes to see what kind of wisdom they can pass along to anyone who finds this site.

This first post is a love letter to anyone visiting this site  – who are not career professionals in the fitness industry.  

Dear Athlete….you need help.

You are amazing.  You have found a sport(s) or activity that you love and keeps you moving.  You have surrounded yourself with old and new friends who share your love of this activity and suddenly, this new community has become an enormously important support group in your life.  You are eager to learn from those who have come before you, and eager to share your wisdom with those who are just now discovering the thrill of the same sport / activity. 

You have learned so much about running, cycling, swimming, skiing (insert sport here) and have probably achieved more than you dreamed at the onset.  Congratulations to how far you have come, you have earned every Strava “kudos” and more.

But.  Unless you have a strength training plan that will enable you to keep enjoying these activities for years to come….you need help.   Many of you have enlisted coaches to help you run faster, cycle further, swim more efficiently – but if you are not purposefully following a program to keep your body physically capable of withstanding the rigors of your sport (and the onslaught of aging) with a strength training plan specifically tailored to your goals, needs and abilities….then you need help.  With that in mind, I spoke with one of the founders of the Functional Aging Institute (FAI) – Dan Ritchie – to see what advice he could offer. 

FAI founders: Dan Ritchie (L) and Cody Sipe (R)

Quick FAI background for my non-fitness industry friends.  The Functional Aging Institute origin story is a pretty familiar one:  a new company born from the market vacuum created by the aging baby boomers.  Prior to the boomers hitting their mid-50’s, there was simply not massive demand for senior fitness programming.  In 2002, Dan Ritchie and Cody Sipes were both attending Purdue University, working on their PhD’s, when this need first became apparent.  They opened a small training center called Miracle Fitness – focusing solely on the 50+ market.

At the time, industry education for this rapidly rising demographic was lacking.  After four years of continued success serving the boomers (then in their 50’s, today in their 70’s) other owner/operators started coming to them looking for advice on how to successfully train their own local baby boomers.  In 2013, the Functional Aging Institute was born from this need.

Today, the FAI has trained several hundreds of trainers who serve the 50+ population, while also teaching the owner/operators how to market to the boomers.   In addition to ‘training the trainers’ – Dan and Cody fill their calendars with business coaching, hosting workshops and mastermind groups.  Luckily, I was able to catch up with Dan just long enough for a quick chat about the challenges they see in keeping the Boomers as active as they want to be.

You and Cody have been doing this for quite a while now – any specific trends you can share?
The only real change is this population is getting bigger and bigger – the 65-75 age group has exploded.  Between the ages of 60-68, many seniors are noticing massive changes for the first time –  an accumulative effect of losing strength, losing energy.   Their endurance is gone, running is no longer an option, and many cannot complete a 5-mile walk, even at a slow pace.  A combination of multiple age-related issues sneaks up until they experience that light bulb moment when they realize their body is not working as before.

That’s where you and your trainers enter the picture?
Basically.  They know they need to do something, and cannot wait any longer if they want to maintain their same lifestyles.   We constantly hear:  “My Doc is suggesting I lose 20 lbs”.   Or…“My grandkids want me to do things with them”.    At varying points on that age graph – they suddenly feel their age. 

Your bottom-line advice for any member of the 50+ community?
If they want to maintain their lifestyles, it’s an absolute must to add functional strength programming and to incorporate neuromuscular exercises that train the nerves and muscles to communicate properly and to react quickly. Exercises commonly utilized in neuromuscular training programs include: plyometric and movement, core strengthening and balance, resistance training, and speed training.

Would you offer different advice for the casually active 50+ vs the still competitive 50+?
Yes.  Your readers are Fit BUT they want to prevent injury, and a good strength training program will be preventative.  They are fit BUT they realize they still need instruction / coaching – just like the coaches they hire for their sport.  We are seeing a much higher interest from 50+ endurance athletes who are looking to incorporate a guided strength training program.

How do you convince 50+ endurance athletes they need coaching for strength training?   
They need to realize this part of their overall training program is just as important as the actual activity.  This is injury reduction.  This is a reduction in muscular issues.  This is core strength and a healthy back.  Strength training helps any athlete of any age maintain their independence, lifestyle, identity.  

A not-small segment of our clients over the age of 60 are just cardiovascular giants.  However, many of them cannot perform well in an obstacle course, or a carrying task, or helping to push a car out of a ditch.  Outside of their sport, their functional capacity is very limited.

Biggest training misconceptions for this age group?
For training this age group, the two biggest misconceptions are the extremes:
** Many trainers treat them like they’re easily broken, limiting their clients to chair-based exercises, or  water-based aerobics, etc.
** The opposite is equally defeating:  train them like they are elite athletes in their 20’s and 30’s.   They are not going to respond the same or recover as quickly as those younger athletes.  Recovery is an essential part of the program.

All training programs must be specific to the individual.  Created around their goals, but it has to start with their specific strengths, weaknesses, and structural needs.  Start with a complete musculoskeletal assessment.

If anyone reading this blog wants to start a strength training program, or tweak their existing program, what should they consider?
Remember to incorporate all 6 Domains of Human Function from the Functional Aging Training Model: Musculoskeltal, Cardiovascular, Balance, Mobility, NeuroMuscular, and Cognitive/Emotional.  Fitness is multi-dimensional, all training programs need to be balanced, and must include neuromuscular training.

Dan and Cody – thank you for your time, wisdom and for educating an entire army of trainers who are impacting the lives of seniors across the globe!

Repeating the theme of this post: strengthening the body is not an option if you want to age well and continue enjoying – or competing in – your sport of choice. If you are unsure of how to design a strength training program specific to your exact needs or aspirations – I would encourage you to find a certified coach / trainer and start that conversation today. Do not wait for the lightbulb of age-related issues to make you realize your body is not working the same as before.

2 thoughts on “Advice for the 50+ athlete from the Functional Aging Institute

  1. Dan and Cody are smart and practical.
    As a conditioning coach for older adults I have found FAI resources that go beyond the gym.
    Great interview.


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